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Khaled Meshaal: Struggle is against Israel, not Jews

Outgoing Hamas leader explains the organisation’s new political programme and whether its vision has changed.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted shortly before Ismail Haniya was elected new political chief of Hamas.

The meeting between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and US President Donald Trump at the White earlier this month was meant to set in motion renewed efforts for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.

But Hamas managed to steal some of the limelight nevertheless. The Palestinian movement labelled a “terrorist organisation” by the United States and Israel, unveiled its new political document outlining its general principles and policies. It is the first such revision since its inception in 1987.

The new document contains descriptions of its position vis-a-vis Israel, its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its demand for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders that some see as a major revision in its stance.

Outgoing Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal talked to Al Jazeera to explain the organisation’s new political programme and the issues behind it. We also discuss the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike and Israeli soldiers being held by Hamas in Gaza.

Al Jazeera: Hamas has just unveiled what it is calling a new political document, a guideline of principles, which many are perceive as a replacement to the founding charter that was written around 30 years ago … Why did Hamas feel the need to write a new one? Does this mean Hamas has changed its ideologies or principles? 

Khaled Meshaal: Hamas presents this document as an expression of the natural evolution of Hamas. Hamas took off 30 years ago. That is a long time. Hamas is just like all other movements, nations and states and like all living organisms that grow and evolve, and become more mature and nuanced, more conscious, without that necessarily being at the expense of principles, values and ethics of the project that underpin our movement. As far as we are concerned, of course, that development will definitely not be at the expense of these values … Our charter was issued in 1988, it was an expression of its historic phase, the phase that saw the launch of the movement of Hamas in 1987. This document today, in 2017, is an expression of the current phase. That is a process that reflects development in Hamas’s political thought and performance, how it deals with the Palestinian scene, the regional and international environments during the past years. That is a natural process, one develops. And it is also natural that one’s development will get reflected in one’s literature and political documents.

Al Jazeera: Development is a natural process. However, there appears to be a change in the identity of Hamas, according to this new document. The founding charter described Hamas as a “branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine”. Whereas this new document describes Hamas as a Palestinian national Islamist liberation and resistance movement. Does this mean that you have broken ties with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Meshaal: Hamas belongs to the school of the Brotherhood. But Hamas is an organisation that is Palestinian, patriotic and Islamic. There is no contradiction between these definitions. The first charter in 1988 mentioned the definition and its relationship to the Brotherhood because it was new back then, we were introducing a new name. Today, there is no need for that anymore. We, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, exist in Palestine, work in Palestine. Its roots are in the Brotherhood, its thinking is of the Brotherhood, but it’s a patriotic movement, a liberation movement, it’s frame reference is Islamic. That is well-known to everyone. But Hamas is an independent movement, not linked to any other organisations; its authority lies in the institutions of its leadership.

Al Jazeera: There is also an important change in the document … with regards to the identification of whom you consider to be your enemy … According to this document you say, “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project, not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against Zionism or Zionists who occupy Palestine …” This is a far cry from the original document … what is the thinking behind it?

Meshaal: Hamas, ever since its inception it realises the nature of the struggle against the Israeli occupier, that it is not a struggle because they are Jews, but because they are occupiers. Yes, in the charter the expression that was used, especially in the early days, it was not as accurate as the one we use in the new document. The Hamas thinking from the very start was clear: We are not facing a religious war. We are not fighting people because of their religion, but because of what they did, the occupation, the aggression …

The struggle against Israel is for our cause, our land. We fight them because they have occupied our land, and attacked our people, and forced them out of their homes. That is the philosophy of the struggle. The first expressions were, perhaps, part of the early start. But in fact, Hamas, throughout its history, believes that the struggle came about because of the occupation. In Palestine and other Arab states, there used to be Christians, Jews and Muslims. Our Arab countries, in particular, especially in Palestine, the land of religions and prophets, it used to be home to several religions. The followers of these religions used to live side by side in peace.

Al Jazeera: There is another article that says Hamas agrees and accepts the 1967 borders … Do you still believe that Palestine is ‘from the river to the sea’, or do you believe you can have a two-state solution?

Meshaal: In the document … Hamas put forward the permanent principles of our people, their rights, the definition of the Palestinian people, the definition of the Palestinian territory, the Palestinian homeland, where our fathers and our forefathers used to live, decades ago. We are not talking of the distant past. Yet, at the same time, reality has created several political programmes for Palestinian groups, so how can we – us and Fatah – work together if each group continues to work in accordance with its own programme only. We would remain disunited, our ability to move forward would be weakened. 

Al Jazeera: Do you believe in 1948 or 1967?

Meshaal: We have said that we are prepared to work within a common Palestinian programme with others to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. With Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return. We have said we are ready to accept that as a joint Palestinian programme with our partners in the homeland and also with our Arab neighbours. But our national principles have remained unchanged. There is no contradiction.

Hamas is both pragmatic politically and open, but this is connected to principles and rights … It [the document] expresses Hamas’s political development, which helps in presenting our case to the world and to attain our national rights.

Al Jazeera: Domestically, there is a mass hunger strike taking place amongst Palestinian prisoners. What is Hamas doing to alleviate this suffering of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails? And I would also like to ask you about the fate of the Israeli soldiers arrested by Hamas in Gaza after the last Israeli waged war on Gaza. Why have we not heard about them, like we heard about Gilad Shalit?

Meshaal: Briefly, the responsibility of Hamas and the Palestinian leadership in general towards the Palestinian captives is twofold. First is to support them, whether they are on hunger strike – we salute them, as they, with empty stomachs, are sending their messages to the entire world – they cause embarrassment to the Israeli occupation and put pressure on it. We identify with them under all circumstances. We defend their cause and support their demands to improve their conditions and their legitimate demands inside the prison, to keep their cause in the public eye on the Palestinian and Arab levels, as well as internationally. Our second demand, which is more important, is to set them free, to force Israel to release them. You know that Hamas has a long experience on that front …

As to information on Israeli captives held by Hamas, as you know this is a security game, a psychological game, bare-knuckle fight. We use the media to put pressure on Israel domestically. That is why the Israeli leadership started to climb down from its marble tower and make U-turns regarding its bravados that claimed there will be no new negotiation for a prisoner swap. We will force it to do so. No information without a price. And the final price will be freeing our captives, both men and women, God willing.

Al Jazeera: President Mahmoud Abbas is meeting President Trump on May 3. This comes a few weeks after President Trump met King Abdullah of Jordan and Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi … What do you think will come out of this meeting?

Meshaal: The Trump administration has not yet explained its vision for the Palestinian problem and the Arab-Israeli struggle. It receives foreign leaders, there may be some test balloons regarding some demands. But to this moment, the new American administration has not yet announced a specific process or vision. And I don’t think that the American administration at the present moment considers it a priority. It is busy with Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Russia. There are many portfolios. Yet, we urge the American administration to deal seriously with the Arab-Israeli conflict and to change its older approach which has led to a dead end … What is required is an Arab-Palestinian stance that not only talks of future projects, but to have the strong cards that will make the world respect us, and that will make our enemy, the Israeli enemy, respect us.